It’s very early, so we probably shouldn’t get too excited yet, but the weary cynicism at the advent of qualifying for the European Championship isn’t proving justified just yet. With the finals expanded to 24 teams, the top two teams from each group will make it through, along with five of the nine third-placed teams: a cakewalk, it seemed, for the bigger nations.
Perhaps some complacency has set in and the bigger nations have made the mistake of assuming they would be strolling to France 2016. Or perhaps the World Cup hangovers haven’t shifted. Whatever the reason, the first two rounds of matches have produced a startling number of upsets. Germany lost to Poland. Spain lost to Slovakia. Switzerland, having gone down to England, lost to Slovenia. The Netherlands lost to the Czech Republic and struggled to beat Kazakhstan. Turkey has lost to a rampant Iceland and the Czechs, but perhaps most intriguing is what is happening to the two most expensive players in the history of football: Gareth Bale and Cristiano Ronaldo.
Portugal’s 1-0 home defeat to Albania last month would have been a shock if it had happened to anybody but Portugal. This is what Portugal does: it messes up seemingly simple qualifying games and struggles through to reach tournaments via the play-offs -- as it has done for both the last two World Cups and Euro 2012. Albania has a neat midfield and there were moments in losing 1-0 to Hungary in an insipid friendly in June when it offered a sense of a coherent team coming together, but there was nothing to suggest it might be a potential qualifier.
Ronaldo missed that game through injury, but he’ll be back for Tuesday’s away match against Denmark, an encounter that has taken on a surprising sense of significance. Paulo Bento was dismissed as coach after the Albania defeat, so this will be Fernando Santos’s first game in charge, but he’ll be managing the team from the stands as he serves an eight-match ban for his “unsporting conduct” in the World Cup second round, when his Greece side lost to Costa Rica on penalties.
The format means there are chances for Portugal even if it loses in Copenhagen, but a poor performance there after Saturday’s friendly defeat to France could cast a shadow over Santos’s reign almost before it has begun. This is an odd group -- none of Portugal’s rivals made it to the World Cup and none could claim to be giants, and yet there is no minnow either. If Albania really has discovered some form with Armenia and Serbia both boasting developing young sides, and it played well in drawing 1-1 with Denmark on Saturday, finishing fourth and missing out on a play-off suddenly does become a possibility for Portugal.
The worst thing is how incapable Portugal seems without Ronaldo. It’s difficult to know where the fault lies, whether he has diminished his teammates by taking so much responsibility himself, or whether their lack of gumption has forced him to become the center of everything, but either way, the Albania game shows the danger when that dynamic is allowed to develop: Take away the star and there is very little left at all. One of Santos’s priorities must be to make the side less reliant on Ronaldo. After all, it’s not as though the likes of Fabio Coentrao, Pepe, Tiago and Joao Moutinho are not used to playing at high level.
While Ronaldo’s presence at international tournaments is expected, Bale is a different case. Wales hasn’t reached the finals of a major tournament since 1958, but the expansion of the Euros should give it hope. It is exactly the sort of mid-ranking side who should benefit under the new format. And Bale is fortunate in that this is probably the best Wales squad since Mark Hughes and Ian Rush were leading the line in the 1980s. As well as Bale, there is Aaron Ramsey and Joe Allen in midfield, plus Ashley Williams in the back and Joe Ledley on the wing.
Ramsey and Allen both missed Friday’s goal-less draw against Bosnia through injury, but the bigger problem may be the management of Chris Coleman. This squad shouldn’t be struggling to beat Andorra, as Wales did last month before a late Bale free-kick spared it. Coleman divides opinion as a manager. His statistics are reasonably good, but he left Coventry after taking the side to its lowest position in 45 years. At Real Sociedad, he missed a press-conference after partying till 5 a.m. (offering the excuse that a washing-machine had flooded his flat) while last September he couldn’t travel with his side to FYR Macedonia because he had lost his passport. A win percentage of just 31 percent isn’t as good as it probably ought to be.
Belgium, almost certainly will top that group, but it’s then a real scrap between Wales, Bosnia, Israel and perhaps even Cyprus for the one other automatic qualifying slot and the play-off position. Wales, quite understandably, dreams of a first major tournament in over half a century, but the possibility exists that both of the most expensive players in world history will not make it to Euro 2016.